WASHINGTON — In a post-9/11 interview with Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, the late President Ford reflected that since the 40-year standoff with the Soviet Union, American presidents have had to face "renegade governments" and "a different kind of enemy."
Ford had come into office at a time when America's enemy was perceived more as Third World rabble-rousers than nuclear forces. It appears that nothing appalled him more than discovering that under presidents from Eisenhower to Nixon, the CIA had engaged in plots to assassinate leftist foreign leaders.
Plots in various stages were hatched against the Dominican Republic's Trujillo, Chile's Salvador Allende, South Vietnam's Ngo Dinh Diem, Congo's Lumumba, Indonesia's Sukharno, Haiti's Duvalier, and, most especially, Cuba's Castro, a plot for which the CIA enlisted the mafia.
Ford himself only learned of the conspiracies when he demanded to see a copy of an internal CIA inspector general's report, which had been commissioned by Director James Schlesinger, looking for Watergate connections.
The inspector general's report, known internally as the "family jewels," covered such CIA improprieties as drug experiments on unwitting subjects and surveillance over domestic antiwar activists. And, most explosively, the plots against foreign leaders.
Ford named a blue-ribbon commission headed by Vice President Nelson Rockefeller to investigate, and told a news conference, "I'm totally opposed to political assassinations." But, after protests that establishment types could not be trusted to deliver a candid report, Ford shifted the inquiries to the Justice Department and the Senate Intelligence Committee headed by Frank Church.
Since then, an executive order signed by Ford has banned US government employees from engaging in, or conspiring to engage in, political assassination. But after 9/11, President Bush issued a "finding" which makes exceptions from the murder ban for known terrorist leaders if capture is impractical.
That makes Ford's executive order 11905, the ban on political assassinations, which was updated by subsequent presidents, not very operative any more.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.